In this article we will address two primary questions:

  • Why should Christians be filled with the Holy Spirit?
  • How can a Christian become filled with the Holy Spirit?

Why Should Christians Be Filled with the Holy Spirit?

A number of scholars believe the Bible teaches that all Christians should be filled with the Holy Spirit.  The following verse of scripture is probably the most often cited passage in this regard.  [Note:  When we quote Scripture in this article, we use the wording in the New King James Version of the Bible, except when we quote a non-biblical source that is using Scripture from a different version of the Bible.]

Ephesians 5:18:  “And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation [i.e., intemperate living]; but be filled with the Spirit. . . .”

On pages 72-73 of his book entitled Be Filled with the Spirit, Lehman Strauss says,

The comparison between drunkenness and being filled with the Spirit is in the matter of control.  A drunk person is under the control of alcohol, and will think, speak, and act in ways not natural when sober.  A Christian who is filled with the Spirit will think, speak, and act in ways not natural when he or she is controlled by the flesh.  Thus a Spirit-filled life is simply a Spirit-controlled life.

When the Father sent the Holy Spirit to dwell in us, it was that He might fill or control us.  The Christian who is filled with the Spirit is not merely indwelt by the Spirit, but also controlled by the Spirit.

With regard to the same scripture passage, John Rea, Th.D., says on page 85 of his book entitled The Layman’s Commentary on the Holy Spirit, “This command is one of the key principles for victorious Christian living.  It is not merely a teaching or an exhortation, but a precept for the believer’s daily conduct.”

Then, with regard to the verb that is translated “be filled” in Ephesians 5:18, Rea explains on page 86,

(1)  It is an imperative, a command, not an optional matter.  (2) It is plural, indicating that the command is meant for all, universal in application.  It is not a privilege to be enjoyed by a few elite Christians, but is the duty of every believer.  (3) It is passive, showing that we cannot fill ourselves with the Spirit – we must let Him fill us.  Yet we are not purely inactive in receiving the Spirit’s fullness, any more than in getting drunk. . . . (4) The verb is in the present tense, teaching that being filled with the Spirit is a continuous process.  We were baptized and sealed in the Spirit once; we are to be continually controlled by the Spirit at all times.

A footnote to Ephesians 5:18 in the NIV Bible addresses the last point made by Rea, as follows: “The Greek present tense is used to indicate that the filling of the Spirit is not a once-for-all experience.”  The footnote goes on to state, “When [Paul] speaks here of being filled with the Spirit . . . he means to be under God’s control.”

John R. W. Stott asserts on page 60 of his book entitled Be Filled with the Spirit,

“Be filled” is not a tentative suggestion, a mild recommendation, a polite piece of advice.  It is a command which comes to us from Christ with all the authority of one of his chosen apostles.

[The command is] written to the whole Christian community. . . . [W]e are all of us to be Spirit-filled.  The fullness of the Holy Spirit is emphatically not a privilege reserved for some, but a duty resting upon all. . . . [T]he command to seek the Spirit’s fullness is addressed without exception to all the people of God.

On page 66 of his book, Stott adds,

The failure and poor performance of many Christians are evidence not of their need to be baptized [i.e., indwelled] with the Spirit . . ., but of their need to recover the fullness of the Spirit which they have lost through sin or unbelief, thus becoming . . . “unspiritual” or “carnal”. . . . In this sense many Christians do have an experience [of the filling of the Holy Spirit] in two stages or more.   But this is not the general will and purpose of God (which is a continuous and increasing appropriation); it is due rather to their sinful backsliding.

Despite what the aforementioned Christian scholars say with regard to Ephesians 5:8, many other Christians seem to believe this passage should be regarded as an exhortation (i.e., a strong urging), rather than as a command.  In either case, it seems clear that the passage teaches that Christians should strive to be filled with the Holy Spirit.

The reason that Christians are commanded to be filled with the Holy Spirit is so they will grow spiritually and be able to perform more effectively the ministries in which God wants them to be involved.  Adult Learner Guide for winter 2007-2008 asserts on page 47, “Too often Christians accept spiritual mediocrity rather than follow the Holy Spirit into spiritual excellence.”

Lehman Strauss asserts on page 69 of his book,

Of the several aspects of the person and work of the Holy Spirit, none is more vital to the Christian’s growth and spirituality than the filling of the Spirit.  The Spirit’s filling is the means by which He controls the behavior and performs His ministries through the believer.

On page 70 of his book entitled The Holy Spirit and the Believer, Theodore H. Epp says, “The filling of the Spirit is essential for spiritual growth.  Without this aspect of the Spirit’s work we could not go on to maturity in the Christian life.”

Charles C. Ryrie, Th.D., Ph.D., explains on page 93 of his book entitled The Holy Spirit,

Spirit filling is necessary in order to experience the full extent of the ministry of the Spirit to a believer.  In other words, it is necessary to growth in the spiritual life.  All Christians belong in their spiritual experience and growth somewhere along the scale between immaturity and maturity.  Maturity involves two things – time and continued control by the Holy Spirit.  Thus a person may be immature either because he has not been a Christian very long or because, even though he has been a believer for a time, he has not been filled by the Spirit and therefore has not made any growth in the things of the Lord.

And Epp states on page 76 of his book,

We . . . need to be filled, or controlled, for our testimony’s sake.  We can speak words, but they do not do the work that God intends them to do unless the Spirit of God uses them.   The same is true of our prayer life.  We can go through the motions of prayer, but unless the Spirit of God is energizing us and directing us, our prayers are empty.  The Word of God instructs us to pray “in the Spirit,” and so His control is needed for that also.

How Can a Christian Become Filled with the Holy Spirit?

John F. Walvoord says on page 191 of his book, “While it is impossible for any Christian to attain spiritual maturity apart from the gradual process which it entails, any Christian upon meeting the conditions may enter at once into all the blessedness of the fullness of the Spirit.”

So, what conditions need to be met for a Christian to have the fullness of the Holy Spirit?  We will consider the following:

  • Desire to be filled
  • Yield control to God
  • Ask to be filled
  • Have faith that you will be filled
  • Continually be refilled

Desire to Be Filled

Lehman Strauss declares on page 81 of his book, “Too many Christians fail to see that being born again and receiving the Holy Spirit is but the first step in the Christian life. . . . It is not likely that we will know the experience of the Spirit-filled life if we do not desire it.”

Similarly, in his book entitled How to be Filled with the Holy Spirit, A. W. Tozer asserts on page 20, “[B]efore you can be filled with the Spirit you must desire to be filled.”

On pages 83-84 of his book, Epp states,

In this desire to be filled with the Holy Spirit must be included our wanting God to judge and put away sin in our lives.  We must have the desire to be separated to the Lord and from the world’s ties and systems of evil.

[T]here must be a desire for the fruit of the Spirit in our lives.  Do we want love, joy, peace, and the other evidences of the Spirit’s life in us?

Yield Control to God

Acts 5:32 says that God gives the Holy Spirit “to those who obey Him.”

Epp asserts on page 75 of his book,

We do not control the Holy Spirit, but He controls us.  This is not the work of man but the work of God upon man.   Being controlled by the Spirit is not the result of our tears or praying or agonizing.  We are acted upon by the Holy Spirit when we submit to Him.

Subsequently, on page 82 of his book, Epp states,

A familiar passage to us is Romans 12:1, where we are told to present our bodies “a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God.”  In obedience to this we are to present or yield ourselves to God.  God wants our bodies so that He can control us through the power of the Holy Spirit.

On page 80 of his book, Lehman Strauss declares,

Even after we Christians have overcome the moral evils of our pre-conversion days, the ugly self-life continues to function. . . . We still tend to want to do as we will.

When we, by an act of the will, dethrone self and enthrone Christ, the Holy Spirit will control us. . . . When self gives way to Christ, the Holy Spirit is not quenched, and a barrier has been removed for the Christian to be filled with the Spirit.

John F. Walvoord, on page 192 of his book, says,

The work of the Holy Spirit in filling the believer may be simply defined as that ministry which is accomplished in the believer when he is fully yielded to the indwelling Holy Spirit.  Every reference to the filling of the Holy Spirit indicates a spiritual condition on the part of the person filled which is brought about by the complete control of the Spirit.

On page 21 of his book, A. W. Tozer asks, “Do you want Him to be Lord of your life?”  Then, on page 23 of his book, he asks, “Are you ready to present . . . your mind, your personality, your spirit, your love, your ambitions, your all?”  He goes on to say, “God gives His Holy Spirit to them that obey Him.  Are you ready to obey and do what you are asked to do?  What would that be?  Simply to live by the Scriptures as you understand them.”

And W. A. Criswell, Ph.D., D.D., asserts on page 12 of his book entitled The Baptism, Filling & Gifts of the Holy Spirit, “It is but for us to yield our souls, hearts, minds, bodies to the indwelling presence [of the Holy Spirit].”

Ask to Be Filled

Theodore H. Epp states on page 74 of his book, “The Holy Spirit does not take control of our lives automatically the moment we believe. . . . [I]f He is to control our daily experience, it is done only with our permission.”  Perhaps the best way to express our permission is to ask to be filled.

Luke 11:13:  [Jesus Christ says] “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!”

In light of the scripture passages teaching that all Christians are indwelled by the Holy Spirit [see our article entitled “Being Filled with the Holy Spirit versus Being Indwelled by the Holy Spirit.”], there is no valid reason to believe this passage suggests that it is necessary for some Christians to ask God to give (i.e., indwell) them with the Holy Spirit.   Therefore, in Luke 11:13, Christ must have been alluding to the filling by the Holy Spirit.  In other words, any Christian who wants to be filled with the Holy Spirit, but is not already filled, needs to ask God to fill him (or her).

1 John 5:14-15:  “Now this is the confidence that we have in Him [Jesus Christ], that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us.  And if we know that He hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of Him.”

We know that God wants every Christian to be filled with the Holy Spirit, based upon Ephesians 5:8, which we previously discussed.  Therefore, every Christian can be confident that God will fill him (or her) with the Holy Spirit, provided that the other conditions are met.

John R. Rice asserts on pages 278-279 of his book, “Anybody who beseeches God, who keeps on pleading with the heavenly Father, is certainly promised the fullness of the Holy Spirit.”  In other words, just asking once or twice may not suffice.  It may be necessary to ask persistently, indicating a sincere desire.  Even then, a Christian may not receive the filling of the Holy Spirit for a long time and perhaps ever, if his (or her) motive is wrong.

James E. Cumming, D.D., states on pages 224-225 of his book entitled Through the Eternal Spirit,

If we seek [God’s power] for ourselves; if the desire of vanity or self-aggrandizement enter [sic] into our motives; if there be any sectarian or sectional object prominent in our minds . . . – then we cannot expect God to entrust power to us on any such terms.

You can have God’s power, for God’s work, in God’s own way – not otherwise.

I fear that this is not what most Christians mean when they long for, or ask for, the power of the Holy Spirit in their life. . . . Probably this is the explanation of the long delay before an answer comes to the prayer they present.  Have we not all known of good souls who have gone on crying for years for the Holy Ghost to come in His fullness and power into their hearts, but who have no more, perhaps even less now, than they had years ago. . . .

Under some circumstances, it may be necessary for Christians who already have been filled with the Holy Spirit to “lay hands” on Christians who desire to be initially filled with the Holy Spirit.  The two following biblical passages deal with such situations, but they don’t make it clear as to the circumstances under which laying on of hands is necessary.

Acts 8:14-17:  “Now when the apostles who were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them, who, when they had come down, prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, for as yet He had fallen upon none of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.  Then they laid hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.”

The group of Samaritans had recently become Christians (verse 12) and, therefore, they were already indwelled by the Holy Spirit.  This means that the incident reported in verses 14-17 (i.e., their being filled by the Holy Spirit) was a special manifestation of His power in them.  Supporting this conclusion is the account in verses 18-19 that a man named Simon, who previously had become a Christian (verse 13), asks for the same power that the other new Christians had just been given.

Acts 19:6:  “And when Paul had laid hands on them [i.e., believers in Ephesus who just then been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ], the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke with tongues and prophesied.”

Although there is no specific mention of these new Christians being filled with the Holy Spirit, their ability to speak in tongues and to prophesy suggests that the Holy Spirit did fill them at this time.

Have Faith that You Will Be Filled

Just as a person needs to trust what the Bible teaches about how to become a Christian, Christians need to claim, through faith, the promises of Luke 11:13 and Acts 5:32 (both of which we cited above) to be confident that they will be filled with the Holy Spirit.

Continually Be Refilled

John F. Walvoord, on page 194 of his book, states with regard to Ephesians 5:18, which was discussed above, that the verb that is translated “be filled” could also be translated “keep being filled.”  Walvoord goes on to say on page 195, “The Scriptures bear a decisive testimony that the filling of the Holy Spirit is a repeated experience.”

The Bible contains at least two examples of Christians being filled more than once with the Holy Spirit.  One example is found in Acts 4:31, with regard to the Holy Spirit filling a number of Christians who, according to prior passages in Acts, had been filled previously with the Holy Spirit.  Another example is found in Acts 13:9, with regard to the Holy Spirit filling the Apostle Paul, who initially had been filled by the Holy Spirit shortly after his conversion (see Acts 9:17).

John R. W. Stott notes on page 50 of his book that references “to the fullness of the Spirit, both describing how certain Christians were filled again, and commanding all Christians to go on being filled, shows [sic] that it is possible . . . for Christians who have been baptized with the Spirit to cease to be filled with the Spirit.”

W. A. Criswell, on page 39 of his book, declares with regard to the Holy Spirit,

His possession of us may be partial but our possession of Him is total.  He is with His saved always, fully, completely, eternally.  But we deny Him ourselves.  We refuse Him access to all the compartments of our hearts.  We keep Him out of so many areas of our lives.  But when we yield our members to Christ, we receive a second blessing.  And when we further yield our members, we receive a third blessing.  And when we further yield, we receive a fourth blessing.

As we keep on yielding and surrendering, the Holy Spirit keeps on blessing, on and on and on, again and again and again.  Oh, for the constant refilling of the Spirit!

Conclusion

Several biblical accounts of dramatic incidents involving Christians who were filled with the Holy Spirit (e.g., see Acts 2:4; 4:31; 8:17) and numerous similar episodes attested to by Christians living in the modern world have caused many Christians to believe it is necessary to have such an experience in order to be filled with the Holy Spirit.  However, there are a considerable number of Christians whose lives have provided strong evidence that they have been filled with the Holy Spirit, although these people apparently have never experienced dramatic manifestations of the filling.

Because being filled with the Holy Spirit is not necessarily a charismatic or intense experience, a Christian may not be cognizant that he (or she) is filled with the Holy Spirit.  Nevertheless, any Christian who sincerely desires to be filled with the Holy Spirit, is willing to yield control of their life to God, earnestly prays to be filled, and has faith that God will do so, can be confident that they have been filled with the Holy Spirit.  However, they must repeat these steps regularly in order to continue to be filled.